by Rabbi James Rudin
Originally published January 14, 2022
Eighty years ago, on January 20, 1942, the infamous Wannsee Conference took place in a large lakeside three-story mansion in suburban Berlin. Fifteen Nazi German leaders attended the meeting that coordinated plans to “orderly execute” —the murder— millions of Jews during World War II.
The conference minutes, written by Adolf Eichmann, a conference participant, noted that: “Due to the war, the emigration plan [for Jews to leave Europe for other lands and nations] has been replaced with the deportation of the Jews to the East, in accordance with the Fuhrer’s will.”
The Nazis often employed euphemistic phrases to conceal the true sinister meaning of their policies. “Deportation… to the East” meant sending Jews—men, women, and children— in locked, overcrowded, filthy railroad boxcars to German death camps located inside occupied Poland.
The object of the conference, convened and led by Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the dreaded SS Security Service, was “to make all the necessary preparations for the Final Solution of the Jewish Question in the German sphere of influence in Europe.” “Final Solution” was repeatedly used at Wannsee to describe the mass murder of millions in order to solve the alleged “Jewish Question.”
Fourteen of the conference attendees, eight of them held university doctorates, were chauffeur driven to the meeting in their official limousines. Heydrich was a bit late in arriving because his private airplane arriving from Prague was delayed by inclement winter weather.
While waiting for the conference leader, the fourteen officials representing both the Nazi Party and the German State were served rare vintage cognac and consumed an elegant buffet luncheon. There was jovial laughter, backslapping, and the male bonhomie that frequently occurred at a high-level meeting of corporate decision-making executives. However, the Wannsee agenda was to affirm the go-ahead for the systematic killing of an entire people: genocide.
But the jocular tone quickly ended once Heydrich triumphantly strode into the first-floor meeting site. He was a brutal military bureaucrat who frightened and browbeat other high-ranking officials with his cold bearing and ruthless actions. He reported only to SS leader Heinrich Himmler, and Heydrich was known to be a personal favorite of Hitler.
In January 1942, he was the hated Nazi ruler of occupied Bohemia and Moravia, regions of Czechoslovakia. Above all, Reinhard Heydrich was a vicious antisemite who wanted every Jew in the world dead. He assigned the specifics of this obscene task to Eichmann, the trusted and efficient SS specialist on all things Jewish. Heydrich called Eichmann his “shipping agent.”
At Wannsee, Heydrich spoke for an hour and distributed a document listing eleven million Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, as well as those living in neutral countries, including Sweden, Switzerland, European Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. Heydrich’s intention was clear: Nazi Germany planned to kill every Jew under its present or future control.
Although Heydrich spoke to the group in euphemistic language, everyone knew exactly what he meant when he said: “…Jews should be brought…to the East for labor utilization…a large part will fall away [die] through natural reduction…the toughest element will have to be dealt with accordingly, since it represents a natural selection…which is to be regarded as a germ cell of a new Jewish development.”
Finally, Heydrich made it clear that his SS forces, led by Eichmann, would provide “under our authority direct operations…” in murdering millions of people as efficiently as possible, including the use of poison gas, to speed the killings.
Heydrich and other high-ranking Nazis were aware that time was not on their side because the vaunted June 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union was stalled. The Red Army’s strong resistance meant a quick conquest of the USSR was not possible. And the December 1941 entry of the United States into the war meant that Britain had gained a powerful ally in its battle with Nazi Germany.
Heydrich was ebullient when the Wannsee Conference ended because he and his SS cohorts had been given free rein to destroy the Jewish people. There was some discussion about the status of Jews married to non-Jews and the offspring of such marriages. But ultimate decisions regarding their fate were left unanswered.
The Wannsee Conference lasted about ninety minutes but changed world history. Many of the participants were tried as war criminals following Nazi Germany’s defeat in 1945. Twenty years after the conference, Eichmann was brought to trial in Israel, found guilty of war crimes, and executed. In May 1942 – four months after Wannsee – Reinhard Heydrich, a chief architect of the Final Solution, was assassinated in Prague by two Czech resistance fighters. They used bombs and grenades to assassinate the SS leader.
A final note: today, the Wannsee mansion is a Holocaust museum and memorial. In 1999 I visited the building where mass murder was carefully planned and approved.
I never want to return.
James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser and the author of “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise,” which was nominated for a 2016 Pulitzer Prize. His new book, The People in the Room: Rabbis, Nuns, Priests, Popes, and Presidents, which is published by iPub, is available now! He can be reached at jamesrudin.com.
You may also enjoy these books by this author: Christians & Jews–Faith to Faith: Tragic History, Promising Present, Fragile Future and Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise.
Other posts by this author include: Bob Moses, Civil Rights Leader Led Us To Imagine The End Of Racism, and After 75 Years, A Question About Race Haunts Truman’s Calculation On Hiroshima. Hear him speak about his life, work, and James Rudin’s new book in this post, The People In The Room A Conversation With Author Rabbi James Rudin.
Marcia Rudin, wife of Rabbi Jim Rudin, has published novels that also incorporate themes of interfaith dialogue. Marcia discusses these books and other experiences of her life with Jim in these posts, The Pope and I, Flower Toward The Sun, and Hear My Voice.